Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

49th Anniversary of MLK Assassination: Where Are We Now?

Memphis,TN – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin’s bullet 49 years ago today, April 4, 1968. He never intended to be a martyr. We who are committed to his legacy, and to the tradition of Christian social justice advocacy must pause long enough on this anniversary to count the cost, to recommit ourselves to the long, hard work of the struggle for human justice and dignity, and to lift all the economic boats of the disadvantaged and marginalized in our society. That would be a worthy way to remember Dr. King today.
Dr. King was a Christian social activist. First and foremost, he was a preacher of the Good News of release to the captives, justice for the poor and sick, and the establishment of what he called “the Beloved Community.” Though the political implications of his life’s work are plain to see from our vantage point today, he was motivated by the non-violent message of Jesus, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and the teachings of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi. The roots of his action ran deep into the soil of religion.
Today, we are a far more secular movement on the progressive side of the political spectrum. It would serve us well to reassess the gifts and benefits of religious faith and training for the justice battles we face in our current world: the continuing fight for racial equality and women’s rights, the effort to ban nuclear weapons from the face of the earth and “study war no more”, and the right of everyone to a fair share of the economy. We also find ourselves locked in a hard fight for the full equality of LGBTQIA Americans, a priority of President Barack Obama that is now under threat from the Trump administration in Washington and its minions on the religious right wing. President Barack Obama was and remains a spiritual and political descendent of Dr. King.
Where does the courage to fight on come from? From where does the strength come to remain committed until justice finally comes to pass?
Today, Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community of equality and equity, of dignity and peace must be embraced by all lovers of justice, sacred and secular alike. That is how we may justly remember Dr. King today–by keeping our eyes fixed on the Prize.

April 4, 2017 Posted by | African Americans, Assassination, Christian Social Activism, Economic Justice, Hate Crimes, Human Rights Struggle, LGBTQ, Martin Luther King Jr., Tennessee, Women's Rights Struggle | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 49th Anniversary of MLK Assassination: Where Are We Now?

Gay America and Martin Luther King Jr.: Why LGBTQ Equality Is His Unfinished Agenda

mlkflag-719751Atlanta, Georgia – In the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his family launched an activist Christian movement that changed the world, preparations are in full swing for the national holiday that bears his memory.  What about Dr. King’s legacy and the human rights struggle today?  Would Dr. King consider the lives and liberties of LGBTQ people his own unfinished business?

During his own lifetime, Dr. King’s record of public support for gay and lesbian people in his own movement was neither courageous nor even positive.  Dr. King, for example, often considered Bayard Rustin, the gay, Quaker activist who proved indispensable to the organization of the 1963 March on Washington, to be a liability to his movement.  The New Civil Rights Movement relates how Rustin was smuggled out of Montgomery, Alabama during the 1956 Bus Boycott with the assent of MLK because Rustin was thought to be a liability to King, the nascent movement, and other African American civil rights leaders. Commenting on the documentary film, Brother Outsider, made to advance Rustin’s legacy, his life partner, Walter Naegle wrote: “A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.  Despite these achievements,” Naegle went on to say, “Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.”  According to Rev. Irene Monroe, an African American lesbian who writes for the Huffington Post, Rustin once offered to resign rather than be seen as a liability to the movement.  She notes that King did not refuse Rustin’s offer, saying of Rustin and another gay associate, “I can’t take on two queers at one time.”  Surely, Bayard Rustin and other faithful workers in the non-violent civil rights movement deserved better.

Liberal Christian leaders disagree on whether Martin Luther King Jr. would have evolved into a human rights advocate, had he lived. Irene Monroe is convinced that he would not, fearing the loss of support in the Black Church. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush thinks that King would have eventually become an outspoken ally of gays and lesbians.  Raushenbush, heir to the mantle of his ancestor’s leadership as a progressive Christian, argues as Senior Editor for Religion in the Huffington Post that King’s attitude toward LGBTQ people, while drawing major aspects of the anti-gay ideology of his day, was surprisingly temperate.  Contemporaries among black and white ministers, such as Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Rev. Billy Graham, were decidedly more negative toward “homosexuals” than Dr. King.

Mrs. Coretta Scott King [Equality Matters image]

Mrs. Coretta Scott King [Equality Matters image]

King’s own family is divided over the question, as well.  His niece, Alveda King, and his youngest and only surviving child, Rev. Bernice King, strongly deny that he would have supported the LGBTQ rights movement in any form.  In 2004, the cousins marched together in an Atlanta demonstration against same-sex marriage and gay rights. But King’s now-deceased widow, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, unequivocally affirmed that her martyred husband would have championed the rights of all people, including those of LGBTQ people.  In a famous remark made near to the 30th anniversary of the death of Dr. King, Mrs. King asserted, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice.  But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’  I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

Mrs. King understood that in order for her late husband’s dream to remain vital over the passage of the years, it had to be made relevant to the emerging struggles of modern oppressed minorities.  She, more than anyone else, reveals the genius of Dr. King’s Beloved Community: every generation enlarges it with new citizens of a freer, better, more perfect union.  With uncommon perception and insight, Mrs. King said to the audience at the 25th Anniversary Luncheon of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, “Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement.  Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own.”  Speaking vicariously for her husband, Mrs. King concluded, “And I salute their contributions.” 

As Mrs. King perceived and advocated, the struggle her husband gave his life to pursue runs parallel to the LGBTQ rights movement.  Racial justice, world peace, justice for workers and the poor, and the cause of non-violence are all still unrequited in the world today, and are the continuing responsibility of the Civil Rights Movement.  But as surely as her husband championed the cause of social change for the betterment of all, LGBTQ equality is just as surely Dr. King’s legacy and unfinished business.

Happy MLK Day from the Unfinished Lives Project Team!

January 21, 2013 Posted by | African Americans, Bayard Rustin, Civil Rights Movement, Coretta Scott King, Georgia, GLBTQ, Heterosexism and homophobia, LGBTQ, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Social Justice Advocacy, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Remembering the 16th Street Baptist Church Martyrs: A Special Comment on Religion and Violence

Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair. They did not die in vain.

Birmingham, Alabama – Today (September 15) marks the 49th anniversary of the senseless murder of four little girls attending Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins who were 14, and Denise McNair who was 12.  The church was bombed on September 15, 1963 by a Ku Klux Klan related group in a vain attempt to terrorize the African American community. The nation was stunned by the news, and virtually overnight, these four young innocents became the leading figures in a renewed non-violent Civil Rights movement led by Christian clergy.  Non-violent outrage over their deaths, arguably, became the impetus for the greatest achievement of the black liberation movement in the United States: the Voter Rights Act of 1965.

Wesley, Robertson, Collins, and McNair should, of course, be remembered perpetually for the loss of their young lives to race hatred in the great Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.  But this year, their loss, and the response of the African American Christian community to their outrageous murders at the time, is a lesson the world needs most acutely.  In the wake of violence throughout the Muslim world over a blasphemous online video defaming the Prophet, and the mounting death toll of American diplomats and Muslim demonstrators, the world needs to pause, take a deep breath, remember the 16th Street children, and choose better ways of protest.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a movingly personal speech Thursday in the aftermath of attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East, calling on religions of the world to affirm non-violence rather than bloodshed. ABC OTUS News reports that Secretary Clinton, speaking at an Eid ul-Fitr reception marking the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, decried both the “inflammable and despicable” anti-Islamic film circulating on the internet, and the violence that took the lives of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  While all religions inevitably face insults and defamation, she said, the way in which believers choose to respond to these affronts is what separates people of true faith from pretenders who use such events as excuses to lash out with violence. “When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence,” Clinton said. “The same goes for all faiths, including Islam.”  

Speaking out of her own faith as a United Methodist Christian, Secretary Clinton went on to say, “I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries. Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one’s faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one’s faith is unshakable.”  Rather than take the path of violence, she said, when one person acts with violence, a million should respond with deeds of religious tolerance and reconciliation. Instead of amplifying hatred, she concluded, each of us must commit ourselves to acts of religious tolerance in our own communities of faith.

Reflecting on the lessons of the 16th Street martyrs, the verdict of history is that only the power of love can conquer senseless hatred–the sort of love typified by the non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the wake of irrational hate crimes like the murders of four little girls nearly fifty years ago. Hate crimes are brutal teachers, but the precepts they teach can lead toward justice and hope, and away from hatred and fear.  The difference is the choices we make and the deeds we do. When confronted with savagery, African American Christians and their allies answered with courage and a greater love–love for what is best in faith, what is best in society, and what is supreme in human experience: the power of reconciliation and hope.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his eulogy for the four little girls on September 18, 1963, said to the grieving city of Birmingham:

“These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”

Never has the challenge to true hearts been greater than today.  The lessons of our forebears and the martyrs who preceded us point away from fear and violence and toward justice and love.  The Unfinished Lives Project Team, then, offers this simple prayer for a better world: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

September 15, 2012 Posted by | African Americans, Alabama, Hate Crimes, Racism, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, U.S. State Department | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Remembering the 16th Street Baptist Church Martyrs: A Special Comment on Religion and Violence

   

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